Monday, August 16, 2010

The Terror of Knowing (Under Pressure)

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
I am a die-hard sports fan. Evidence of this fact is not hard to find ; For instance I spent the majority of yesterday afternoon watching preseason NFL games - All in anticipation of the Broncos opener. (and the debut of Touchdown Jesus Tim Tebow) Basketball, and the NBA's Denver Nuggets rank second in the hierarchy of my rooting heart. At least where the so-called 'major' sports are concerned. Despite all that I rarely read sports related books. My reasoning for this is simple. I can usually place said sports books into three basic categories. First is the success story. I don't want to give the impression that I am some bitter armchair asshole who doesn't like to see people achieve their dreams.  However, I would much rather watch those sort of triumphs live. The Saints' recent Superbowl win is a good example of this. Particularly because head coach Sean Payton and starting quarterback Drew Brees have both released books on the heels of the big win. (neither of which I have any intention of reading) Sorry champs, I know how the story ends. The second category is the hard luck heartbreaker.  The story of the star who didn't make it.  Sure there are lessons to be learned from such books but as I've already said I do not derive pleasure from an athlete's failure. Third, and most likely to draw my disdain is the tell-all media whoring money grab. The kind of book released by guys like Jose Conseco, full of finger-pointing, and rife with tones of self-righteousness. Of course I don't condone cheating, yet there is something especially off-putting about books like that. Even more so when you consider the fact that most authors of these books wouldn't be saying anything if they weren't broke and desperate for cash.

Now that you know why sports related literature is a rarity for me you may wonder what makes George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out an exception to the rule. Well I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I was somewhat obligated. I won an advance copy of this book through a goodreads giveaway.  Still there is a reason that this book enticed me to enter where others of it's ilk get no attention whatsoever. The hook was that I wanted a better understanding of the so-called grassroots game.  This is the term most closely associated with the AAU system.  The AAU organizes leagues and tournaments  for grade school kids as young as seven, and as old as eighteen. (second grade, through highschool).  The AAU dabbles in almost all sports, but basketball is by far king in it's the youth sports machine.  Baseball has Little League. Football has Pop Warner. Youth basketball has no such establishment, outside the AAU, or at least not one so strong.  Basketball also differs in another big way. The NBA's entrance procedure is different. Players are not barred from joining the Association straight out of high school, and more often than not, straight off an AAU roster.  Superstars can be, and are routinely drafted early.   The NFL still requires it's players to, if not attend college, at least wait three years after high-school graduation before becoming eligible.  The MLB, though not shy about drafting youngsters, has an extensive minor-league system where prospects develop before being sent up to the majors. One need look no further than the NBA's two biggest  stars to see the contrast.  Kobe Bryant and Lebron James never went to college.  They are both products, and prodigies of the AAU. Other notables include Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady.

Basketball is unlike other team sports, in part because of it's limited team size.  Having only ten players in total on the floor at any given time means individuals have greater chance to shine, as individuals. Yet the brighter spotlight is not all a natural occurrence. Sponsorship greases the wheels of the AAU system in an unmatched capacity.  Specifically sponsorship of shoe companies, such as Nike, Adidas,  and Reebok.  In the AAU it is common practice for coaches of elite teams to sign on as "consultants" with shoe companies, which nets them salaries and product (in insane amounts) in exchange for agreements to wear gear, and in many cases run sponsored tournaments and camps. The money allows teams to travel nationwide and increase their top players profiles which helps explain some of how mega-hype spreads.  The coaches themselves are some of the loudest drum beaters for potential phenoms, and as you will see subsequently, one of the most unsavory elements of grassroots basketball.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here, seeing as this advance review. (release date says 10.5.10) What I will say is that the story deals primarily with one star, Demitrius Walker, and the coach who ' discovered' him Joe Keller. At the age of nine or ten Walker was told by Keller that he was destined for the NBA, and of course riches beyond imagining.  Demititrius had size and quickness that other boys his age couldn't hope to match  These types of promises are doubtless common, no matter how ludicrous they might seem.  Yet what Keller didn't mention to his golden boy recruit was both money and revenge were coach Joe's primary motives.  Years earlier Keller had been duped by local coach and power broker Pat Barrett when he handed over eventual #2 overall draft choice Tyson Chandler. Barrett had promised a partnership which never materialized.  Barrett's SCA Stars were already sponsored by Nike, and so Keller thought he would extend either a joint-team proposal or a similar contract to the one he enjoyed.  Dohrmann, who was  writing a story for Sports Illustrated  in 2000 hoped to get some dirt from Keller.  When their initial meeting revealed little, Dorhrmann assumed he'd have to look elsewhere.  Still a relationship was forged, and Keller would eventually talk at more length about his relationship with Pat.  Nothing goundbreaking was published at that point but after a follow-up interview  in 2001 Keller advised Dohrmann to keep in touch.  He explained his intention of starting a new squad to beat Barrett at his own game.  What is even more telling is Keller's decision to allow extended access to his teams story once Walker was found.  Keller explained that as long as any comprehensive piece done about his team, (or a book like this one) waited until the conclusion to be published, he, meaning Keller, would be rich, and would no longer care what Dohrmann said.

The story is a long one that spans over eight years. From the inception of Keller's team the Inland Stars to the high school graduation of it's players. The team is eventually re-branded as Team Cal, following a sponsorship with Adidas.  The roster changed frequently but Demitrius was always the focal point as far as coach Joe was concerned. Many  Inland Stars / Team Cal alums went on to sign with Division I programs.  This is the most positive part of the story to be sure.  It also proves Keller's eye for future talent. What is also apparent however is Keller's reputation as a dishonest, and generally bad guy. For example he is no longer on good or even speaking terms with his former players. Walker's rise to a #1 ranked prospect (in the 8th grade) led to his being dubbed by one of Dohrmann's SI colleagues  ' The Next LeBron ' in 2005.  His life anointment shines a light on the darker side of expectations and the hunt for NBA dollars.

Again I reiterate that I do not typically read sports books.  Play Their Hearts Out is more than that. This is the type of story that movie makers might salivate over. If anything holds this back from being a blockbuster it will either be it's grittiness (which may scare away family oriented film makers) and it's length ( which could keep it from being a future Spike Lee Joint) It's no real surprise that this was well written.  After all Dohrmann is one  only four sportswriters to ever be awarded a Pulitzer - Albeit an earlier series of stories he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press detailing academic fraud. The book may not change the way you view basketball, but it will show you up close, what has changed basketball.

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